An unpublished interview with Eoin Colfer, from the never finished final issue of Death Ray. This piece comes from 2009, and was written when Colfer had completed his Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy sequel.
It’s a brave man who’d attempt a sequel to one of the best-loved humorous book sequences of all time. Step forward Eoin Colfer, Artemis Fowl author, and possessor of the best in Irish pluck.
Best known as the (highly successful) author of the Artemis Fowl series, concerning the adventures of a youthful criminal mastermind (lately reformed) and his dealings with technologically-advanced fairies, Eoin Colfer is a firm favourite of kids worldwide. His novels, humorous affairs with a touch of darkness, have been compared to Douglas Adams, so it’s perhaps natural that his agent and Adams’ agent should hit upon asking the writer to pen a sixth book in the Hitchhikers series, an idea Adams’ widow and daughter were both keen on, being big fans. Colfer, however, was less than enthusiastic at first.
“Originally I said this is craziness, and what’s more, nobody should do it, not just me, but not anybody. But my agent said think about it. I thought about it, and I started to have a few ideas and I thought, you know, I could have a blast with this, it could really rejuvenate me as regards enjoying writing, because I had been feeling a little, not jaded, but not as enthusiastic as I normally am. A bit wrung out after 10 years and twenty books. I was a little bit knackered, I think is the medical term!”
Feeling invigorated at the prospect of a challenge, Colfer said yes, but only on condition that the deal could be done quickly…
“It can take months to get contracts for these things sorted out. But I knew there’d be a big reaction to this. I wrote it really quickly, in about six months, so it was a weird experience to go into someone else’s universe. I just wanted to get it over with quickly, because I reckon the brown stuff is going to hit the air disperser and I just wanted to put my head down and weather it. There’s so much outside interest, there are a lot of fans, and the Hitchhikers books mean a lot to them. I want to try and win them over without crawling to them, because I don’t want to be craven, you see.”
By that he means that fans should not expect his take on The Salmon of Doubt – Colfer was offered notes culled from the fertile archeological grounds of Adams’ hard drive, but declined them. He also wrote in his own style, and did not try to imitate the man.
“A lot of people try to write like Douglas Adams when they’re doing intros to his books or an article about him,” he explains, “and I really wanted to avoid doing that because it rarely works. I think Neil Gaiman did it once, just a few lines in the intro to his book Don’t Panic!, but he’s the only guy that I’ve seen who could do it, and then he didn’t do it for the whole book, just a little fond thing at the start. Other than that, forget it, Douglas Adams’ is the master, just leave it alone, so.”
Colfer puts his own reticence to try and ape Adams’ style down to their vastly differing backgrounds.
“I think my style is probably similar but diluted. Douglas had a way of doing this zany prose that was a lot to do with where he went to school, with footlights in the 1960s, the 70s, where there was this very much kind of upper class British humour, laced with social consciousness and absurdity that I don’t have. I mean, I’m a lower middle-class Irish country boy, so it would be ridiculous for me to try and pretend that I had these years of going to Cambridge. Douglas did all these things, he wrote for Monty Python, he jammed with Pink Floyd… There are four or five things you should not mess with in English entertainment culture, and that would be Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Pink Floyd, Douglas Adams, and Tony Hancock. You don’t mess with them because they have transcended their medium to become a part of people’s lives, and it doesn’t really matter in a way what they are any more, because they’re a memory for people. If I try to ape Douglas at all I’d just be totally shooting myself in the foot, and the series as well. So I just thought I’d bring something of myself to it, with the odd little nod, one or two sentences here or there, like Neil Gaiman did, just a little taste hopefully to show my respect for the original. I imagined Simon Jones or John Cleese reading what I was writing out loud, if it sounded right, then I knew I was on the right track, and I kept doing that until I got into it.”
Colfer says that it was not a big leap from YA fiction to HHTG. They’re ostensibly adult books, but he says most people discover as teenagers, and that he’d always written his novels to that kind of level, although writing in Adams’ milieu meant that he no longer had to hold back when the odd bout of swearing or explicit topic came up. What he did find challenging, however, is thinking about how the fans might react to his trespass of some of SF’s holiest ground.
“People are very emotional about Hitchhiker, I know I am because it was a big part of my youth, and when something becomes a big part of your teen years it just stays with you. I don’t want people to have this great fondness for it and then suddenly, bang, here comes this guy and it’s all glib one-liners and it doesn’t mean anything, I think it the reviews so far have said exactly what I’ve wanted, they’ve said it’s not Douglas Adams writing, because he’s gone. It’s not somebody trying to copy Douglas Adams but it’s a funny book, and it’s a nice addition to the shelf. And that’s the best I can do. But I’m, I’m very worried about tours. I’m not worried about the US tour, but the UK tour is going to be tough, because you have to face Douglas’s real fans, the guys who love him. I’ve met a lot of them now and they’ve been very nice, so maybe I’m being worried without foundation, but I think they are going to ask me hard questions, and they’re right to do that. There’s a lot of guys who are going to say, listen, I don’t agree with the idea of this book, and so I’m not going to read it, and I would say, fair enough but I don’t accept it’s a horrible book unless you read it. I was at Comicon, San Diego, a couple of weeks ago, and this guy came up to the stall and he took a proof and he said ‘I’m going to read this before I hate it,’ and I said ‘Thank you very much.’ He was kind of funny, but he kind of encapsulated I suppose what I was afraid of.”
Colfer says there might be further sequels, but that he will not be writing them, once as a tribute is enough, he says, any more than that and it would look like he was trying to take over, something he’s really keen to avoid, and he doesn’t not want people to think he took up the pen simply for the cash, either. “It’s definitely not a financial thing, I am very well paid for what I do, and I would have been better off writing another of my own books. I turned down an earlier opportunity to write a sequel book, in fact, because then I wasn’t established and it would have looked too much like I was jumping on a bandwagon. The main reason I did it, I suppose if I’m honest was that Douglas’ agent said that he wanted, and Jane, his widow, wanted Hitchhikers to be introduced to a new generation, and that I could probably do it for them. It’s hard to say no to that.”